Heat Pipes for Thermal Management

Everything you need to know about heat pipes

Heat Pipes (HPs) are one of the most efficient ways to move heat, or thermal energy, from one point to another. These two-phase systems are typically used to cool areas or materials, even in outer space. Heat pipes were first developed for use by Los Alamos National Laboratory to supply heat to and remove waste heat from energy conversion systems.

Today, heat pipes are used in a variety of applications from space to handheld devices that fit in your pocket. Heat pipes are present in the cooling and heat transfer systems found in computers, cell phones, and satellite systems.

A heat pipe is a simple tool, but how it works is quite ingenious.

These devices are sealed vessels that are evacuated and backfilled with a working fluid, typically in a small amount. The pipes use a combination of evaporation and condensation of this working fluid to transfer heat in an extremely efficient way.

The most common HP is cylindrical in cross-section, with a wick on the inner diameter. Cool working fluid moves through the wick from the colder side (condenser) to the hotter side (evaporator) where it vaporizes. This vapor then moves to the condenser’s heat sink, bringing thermal energy along with it. The working fluid condenses, releasing its latent heat in the condenser, and then repeats the cycle to continuously remove heat from part of the system.

The temperature drop in the system is minimal due to the very high heat transfer coefficients for boiling and condensation. Effective thermal conductivities can approach 10,000 to 100,000 W/m K for long HPs, in comparison with roughly 400 W/m K for copper. The choice of material varies depending on the application, and has led to pairings such as potassium with stainless steel, water with copper, and ammonia with aluminum, steel and nickel.

Benefits include passive operation and very long life with little to no maintenance.

How a Heat Pipe Works

heat pipe technology diagram


A heat pipe consists of a working fluid, a wick structure, and a vacuum-tight containment unit (envelope). As discussed earlier, the heat input vaporizes the working fluid in liquid form at the wick surface in the evaporator section.

Vapor and its associated latent heat flow toward the colder condenser section, where it condenses, giving up the latent heat. Capillary action then moves the condensed liquid back to the evaporator through the wick structure. Essentially, this operates in the same way as how a sponge soaks up water.

Phase-change processes and the two-phase flow circulation in the HP will continue as long as there is a large enough temperature difference between the evaporator and condenser sections. The fluid stops moving if the overall temperature is uniform, but starts back up again as soon as a temperature difference exists.  No power source (other than heat) is needed.

In some cases, when the heated section is below the cooled section, gravity is used to return the liquid to the evaporator.   However, a wick is required when the evaporator is above the condenser on earth.  A wick is also used for liquid return if there is no gravity, such as in NASA’s micro-gravity applications.

When Are Heat Pipes Used?

When asking what a heat pipe is, you’ll get a better understanding by learning about when they are used. You’ll find many simple and complex systems that use these pipes in a variety of deployments based on different operating principles, thermal performance needs, conductivity requirements, spatial restrictions, overall strength, and cost.

Heat pipes are a smart investment if you have a device or platform that needs any of the following:

  • Transfer of heat from one location to another. For example, many electronics use this to transfer heat from a chip to a remote heat sink.
  • Transform heat from a high heat flux at the evaporator to a lower heat flux at the condenser, making it easier to remove overall heat with conventional methods such as liquid or air cooling. Heat fluxes of up to 1,000 W/cm2 can be transformed with custom vapor chambers.
  • Provide an isothermal surface. Examples include operating multiple laser diodes at the same temperature, and providing very isothermal surfaces for temperature calibration.

A Few Standard Examples of How Heat Pipes Are Used

The most common application is a copper pipe system that uses water inside a copper envelope in order to cool electronics, operating within a temperature range of 20°C to 150°C.

One of the benefits for a copper/water system is that it is easy to combine with elements that are already existing in electronics. Heat sinks are present in almost every computing device and have their cooling capabilities enhanced when paired with heat pipes.

HVAC systems often turn to heat pipes for energy recovery because they require no power.

They are also used for thermal control of satellites and spacecraft. The systems provide an efficient method of heat distribution.  These spacecraft systems use extremely pure fluids, and are built to meet the strictest of standards, to allow operation for 30+ years.   Every issue in space is mission-critical, and small failures can ruin multi-million-dollar equipment.

benefits of heat pipes graph

Common Questions: What Are the Benefits of a Heat Pipe?

There are some universal benefits of how a heat pipe works across almost all applications:

  • High Effective Thermal Conductivity.  Transfer heat over long distances, with minimal temperature drop.
  • Passive operation. No moving parts, and require no energy input other than heat to operate.
  • Isothermal operation.  Very isothermal surfaces, with temperature variations as low as ± 5 mK.
  • Long life with no maintenance. No moving parts that could wear out. The vacuum seal prevents liquid losses, and protective coatings can give each device a long-lasting protection against corrosion.
  • Lower costs. By lowering the operating temperature, these devices can increase the Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) for electronic assemblies.  In turn, this lowers the maintenance required, and the replacement costs.  In HVAC systems, they can reduce the energy required for heating and air conditioning, with payback times of a couple of years.

Answering All of Your Heat Pipe Common Questions

Now that you have the basics, we’re sure you have more complex questions. While some answers are specific to your needs and system requirements, these responses to standard questions will give you a better understanding as to how these devices operate:

  • What is the distance can they operate over?

Earthbound HPs that work against gravity are relatively short — typically, a maximum of roughly 2 feet (60 cm) long, and a maximum elevation against gravity of roughly one foot (30 cm).

Spacecraft heat pipes are usually under 10 feet (3 m) long, and the extra length is allowed because they operate in zero gravity.

When a heat pipe works with gravity, called a thermosyphon, the length can be virtually unlimited, and you’ll find many in lengths up to hundreds of feet (m).

  • Can a heat pipe operate against gravity?

They can operate even when the evaporator is located above the condenser, going against gravity. This means the capillary action must return liquid against the fluid pressure drops, as well as the gravitational head.  This setup will reduce the overall maximum power available to move the working fluid. Use ACT’s Heat Pipe Calculator to see exact requirements and capabilities.

  • What is the temperature range for a heat pipe?

temperature range of heat pipe

Individual two phase systems can carry at least some heat between the triple point and the critical point of the working fluid, but the power transferred near both the triple point and the critical point is very low. There is a smaller practical temperature range that shows individual capabilities and limits, e.g., copper/water HPs normally operate between 25°C and 150°C.

  • What materials are used for envelopes, wicks, and working fluids?

We often get asked what envelopes and wicks are made of, and what can be used for working fluids. There are a significant number of materials that can be used for each, but the important requirement is that the fluid and materials must be compatible.

Proper selection of envelope, wick, and working fluids allow ACT to build you a system that operates maintenance-free. We’ve put together this list of compatible materials, but the most common envelope/wick and working fluid combinations are copper/water for electronics cooling, aluminum/ammonia for spacecraft thermal control, copper/Freon and steel/Freon for energy-recovery applications, and superalloy/alkali metal working fluids for high-temperature applications.

  • Can a Water Heat Pipe Operate After Freezing

Water HPs carry very little power at temperatures below ~ 25°C, due to the very low vapor densities limiting the amount of power that can be transferred.  At temperatures below freezing, heat transfer only occurs by conduction through the wall and wick.

Note that properly designed copper/water heat pipes can be designed to withstand thousands of freeze/thaw cycles without damage carrying power after the water is liquid.  This is achieved by tightly controlling the liquid inventory, so that all of the liquid is contained in the wick.   This prevents a liquid bridge from forming and damaging the device by expansion when it freezes.

Get Your Quote Today

Now that you’ve learned what a heat pipe is and how they are used, it’s time to contact ACT for more information and a quote for including a heat pipe into your equipment. We will help you decide how best to meet your needs with equipment including:

  • Thermal management
  • Heat pipe assemblies
  • HiK™ plates
  • Vapor chamber assemblies
  • PCM heat sinks
  • Cold plates
  • And much, much more.

We’ll provide you with everything you need to understand cost and installation of standard heat pipes as well as options that are gravity aided, operate in areas where internal liquids may freeze, and other particular cases on and above Earth.

Reduce your costs and improve the life and reliability of your equipment with a simple conversation designed to make your operations easier and affordable. Contact ACT today to learn about all of your thermal management and other energy recovery options.

Updated: 06/09/2016

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